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Claressa Shields brings ‘big-time boxing’ back to Detroit

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Claressa Shields throws some punches after weighing in Thursday at the MGM Grand Casino.

Detroit — Claressa Shields likes that she is being viewed as a pioneer in women’s boxing. She likes the pressure and likes the idea of proving to everyone that a 21-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist can change the course not only of women’s boxing but the entire sport.

Shields is brash and cocky, and when she speaks, you believe every word she says. After all, she was 77-1 as an amateur — her lone loss came when she was 17 — and is 1-0 as a pro boxer, not to mention being the only American boxer to win back-to-back Olympic golds, along with her World Championships and Pan American Game golds.

The Flint native will be the first woman to headline a professional fight card on Showtime when she faces Szilvia Szabados in a six-round bout for the NABF middleweight title Friday night at the MGM Grand Detroit Event Center. It will air on Showtime’s presentation of “ShoBox,” which features up-and-coming young boxers.

The event in a 900-seat room at the MGM has sold out for the card featuring Shields along with a number of Detroit boxers like James Gordon Smith, Ed Williams and Marcus Carter. It has been some time since Showtime has been in Detroit to televise boxing, and it’s a stage on which they want to shine a Detroit spotlight.

“It’s big-time boxing,” said the Kronk Gym’s Javan “Sugar” Hill, nephew of the famed late Detroit trainer Emanuel Steward. “It’s just a start and a beginning of more great boxing in Detroit and Michigan.

“This is a fight town. It’s just been quiet for a while. With Claressa here bringing the big fights back to Detroit and to Michigan, I see something great happening after this. That’s why I’m so excited.”

Shields’ fight is a vehicle for Detroit boxers to get some exposure, and “ShoBox” certainly is interested in her future.

“She’s come in with top credentials, and should she pass her first test, we will look to have her back and develop her into a contender,” said Gordon Hall, a Showtime vice president. “The women’s pool of fighters is much smaller than the men, which will allow Claressa, with victories in her next few fights, to challenge for a title a lot quicker than the men.”

Hall said it has been a number of years since Showtime was in Detroit for a fight. He did recall that the event took place at the Fillmore, when it was called the State Theatre, so it was at least 2007 or earlier.

Hall is looking forward to watching Shields in action Friday night.

“She’s very talented, great personality, grounded and mature for a 21-year-old,” Hall said. “She’s an advocate of women’s rights. She doesn’t want to be just known as a female fighter — she wants to be known as a fighter. She wants to use her platform as becoming a well-known fighter to be an advocate for women’s rights and an advocate for the city of Flint and to make a difference outside of the ring as well as inside the ring. I think she’s a wonderful kid.”

Hall said when Shields was proposed to be on “ShoBox,” he was mostly concerned about finding her a strong matchup. Several potential opponents turned down the opportunity. Szabados, who is 15-8 with six knockouts, accepted and is what Hall calls a “credible” opponent.

The main event

Location, location, location made Shields an easy call as the top billing.

“What put her in the main event was the fact we were able to put the show in Detroit,” Hall said.

Shields loves the fact she will be fighting near her hometown of Flint, and if it gives a boost to Detroit boxing, she’s all for that, too. Ultimately, though, her manager, Mark Taffet, envisions much more from Shields.

Claressa Shields and Szilvia Szabados mug for the cameras afterthe  weigh-in at the MGM Grand Casino on Friday.

“Claressa Shields wants to carry not only women’s boxing but all of boxing on her very capable shoulders, and that’s why I wanted to be her manager,” Taffet said.

This is her second professional fight after winning a decision over Franchon Crews last November. Taffet sees the boxing doors wide open for someone with her fighting savvy, her worldliness gained from her amateur career, and her grit.

“Claressa will embolden women of all ages, ethnicities, creeds and backgrounds to watch boxing,” Taffet said. “Also, men will watch her because they will respect the heck out of her as an athlete and they will want to see what she does. Just like people watched Ronda Rousey in MMA and literally it brought MMA to levels that it hadn’t reached before, men will want to watch Claressa Shields because of her skill, her talent and the way she performs in the ring like no other woman and soon to be like no other man.

“I believe Claressa Shields has an opportunity to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, period, no gender labels, within a few years. She accepts that goal.”

Shields knows what people will see from her Friday night in the ring. She has already informed Szabados she will not lose in front of her family. And while her trainer, Jason Crutchfield, wants her to finish the fight in one round, Shields likes the idea of some added television time and wouldn’t mind going two rounds.

“Friday night they’re going to say, ‘I can’t believe she’s a woman,’ that’s what they’re going to say,” said Shields, who hopes to fight again in May. “There is no woman who has boxed on TV who has the skill I have. There have been a lot of great women who have boxed on TV and who have boxed on the internet, whatever — none of them have the same skill level I have and the same punch accuracy and the same power.

“And I think people are going to be like, ‘We’re not sure if she’s a girl,’ that’s what they’re going to say. They’re going to say I can really fight, and they’re going to be like, ‘That’s the best woman fighter I’ve ever seen.’ ”

‘Equal opportunity’

Shields is still maturing as a fighter, Crutchfield said, but said she has a “gift” and can take women’s boxing and her career to a new level.

“I think she’s ready,” Crutchfield said. “She can handle pressure, believe me.”

Dave McWater, manager for Toledo boxer Wesley Tucker, who also is on the Friday card, this week compared Shields to Jackie Robinson due to her pioneering role, and also to Wilt Chamberlain.

“She’s a little bit Wilt Chamberlain in that she’s the only athlete I can think of who the minute they turn pro is already considered the greatest ever,” McWater said. “It’s kind of remarkable. You’re going to be seeing a little bit of Jackie Robinson and a little bit of Wilt Chamberlain.”

Shields wants to be a boxer who makes a difference in the sport.

“I’m definitely breaking new ground,” Shields said this week. “I’m definitely showing something in women’s boxing that hasn’t really been seen before. I’m glad they chose me to do it. I don’t feel any pressure. It’s something I want to do. I want to help women’s boxing. I want us to be equal. Equal pay, equal TV time, equal opportunities. Just be given a chance.

“If I couldn’t have gotten the main event — what makes a guy who’s 5-0, why should I fight under him? And I’m a two-time Olympic gold medalist, so I was glad I was the main event and the people are fighting under me, even though they have more fights, but I have more accomplishments. That’s called equal opportunity right there.”

Shields vs. Szabados

What: Claressa Shields vs. Szilvia Szabados in scheduled six-round fight

When: Friday

Where: MGM Grand Event Center, Detroit

TV: Showtime coverage begins at 10 p.m.